Monday, February 15, 2010

Mario Canahuati Goes to Washington

A story on the AP newswire last Saturday quotes Mario Canahuati, new Foreign Minister of Honduras, saying he is on his way to Washington, DC to promote a direct meeting between Barack Obama and Porfirio Lobo Sosa as part of the campaign to normalize relations with the US.

According to El Tiempo, Lobo Sosa's main goal in meeting with President Obama would be to seek extension of the Temporary Protected Status, extended to almost 80,000 Honduran immigrants in the US. This status allowed undocumented migrants who came to the US in the wake of Hurricane Mitch to remain there.

Foreign Relations Minister Canahuati is quoted in the Spanish El Economista as saying
What has been requested is to strengthen relations with the US and logically for that a reunion of president Porfirio Lobo with president Barack Obama is necessary.

Of course, a direct face-to-face conversation between the two is not required for strengthening of relations with the US; but it would be a publicity boon for Lobo Sosa. It is worth remembering that President Obama never met directly with former President Zelaya after the coup d'etat, despite Zelaya making at least five separate trips to Washington, and despite reiterating that Zelaya remained the only recognized president of Honduras in the eyes of the US government, even as late as January 22 of this year. Instead, Zelaya was offered meetings with representatives of the State Department, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. There is a reason that governments use high-ranking cabinet members for such purposes: the aura that comes from meeting directly with the US president is political capital on its own.

So does Mario Canahuati have a chance of promoting such an encounter between Obama and Lobo Sosa? In part, that depends on defining a politically acceptable agenda. So it is worth pointing out that while the AP claims the purpose of such a meeting would be "restoring ties damaged by last June's coup", the actual proposal by Canahuati steers clear of that touchy terrain. Instead, by raising the impending end of the protected status in summer of this year, Canahuati has identified an issue that is of sufficient weight that it can credibly be proposed as the focus of joint discussions by presidents of the two countries. Which of course does not mean Obama has to agree to this, and given the radioactive nature of debate in the US about undocumented immigrants, and hysteria promoted by news coverage of gang violence by youths of Central American background, it would not be surprising if this issue were taken up at a lower level of the government.

And that brings us to a second factor at play in this bid to get Lobo Sosa some reflected glow, which is Canahuati's own skills and connections. As minister of Relaciones Exteriores, Canahuati brings to the table a history as Ambassador to Washington, from 2002 to 2005. As Ambassador, he was responsible for negotiating a previous renewal of the protected status given to undocumented Hondurans in the US after Hurricane Mitch. In 2005, he was the National Party candidate for vice president, on the losing ticket with Porfirio Lobo Sosa. He went on to be President of the Consejo Hondureño de la Empresa Privada (COHEP, Honduran Council of Private Enterprise) in 2006, speaking in opposition to President Zelaya's policies.

Canahuati is the son of a businessman, Juan Canahuati, whose wealth came from textile companies in the north coast, near San Pedro Sula, founded in 1964, and today called Grupo Lovable. His brother is Jesús Canahuati, head of the maquiladora's association. Jorge Canahuati, owner of La Prensa and El Heraldo, is another relative. According to a profile published while he was Ambassador to Washington previously, Mario Canahuati studied industrial engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.

In a previous post, we noted Canahuati's role as a defender of the coup d'etat of 2009 who promoted the idea that the economic sector could withstand international pressure. He was a major rival of Lobo Sosa's in the primary campaign for the National Party nomination, leading the "Todos Somos Honduras" movement. Juan Canahuati was identified by sociologist Leticia Salomon as one of the group of wealthy elites who backed the June 28 coup d'etat. Jesus Canahuati was vice president of the Honduran section of CEAL, the Business Council of Latin America, notorious as the on-the-record employer of Lanny Davis as apologist for the 2008 coup.

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